I made a little fun of Auburn’s defensive tackle the other day for the way he described the task at hand, but at heart, he’s right: if the Tigers can’t slow Georgia’s running game down, it’s going to be a long day for the home team.
To its credit, Auburn’s done a good job defending the run this season. Texas A&M averaged 4.21 yards per carry and that’s the best any opponent has managed this season. By comparison, Georgia’s defense has yielded a higher average in three games. Common opponents are a mixed bag: Mississippi State did better against Georgia on the ground, but Missouri was better against the Tigers.
The difference in the game, at least with regard to how successful both teams are running the ball, may be depth. Georgia is in far better shape, with all five backs healthy and contributing. Auburn can’t really compare there.
Auburn has worn down its share of opponents the past couple of seasons with Johnson and Pettway, but the two were never at full strength at the same time this year. Pettway, a 6-foot, 235-pounder, led the SEC last season with 124.8 yards a game but missed three contests due to injury, including the 13-7 loss at Georgia.
Pettway already had missed three games this year before the Oct. 21 trip to Arkansas, where he rushed 11 times for 90 yards and three touchdowns before sustaining the season-ending setback.
The 6-foot, 212-pound Johnson has rushed for 868 yards this season, with a whopping 704 coming in the last four games. He is coming off a 29-carry, 145-yard performance in last week’s 42-27 win at Texas A&M, and he also had five receptions for 29 yards.
“KJ is one of our best players, and you can see it in the way he plays,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday in his weekly news conference. “He is a physical runner and a very smart player. In that fourth quarter, he just willed his way, and the special ones have that.
“He’s definitely in that category of the special running backs we’ve had here.”
Johnson has been a touchdown machine this season, reaching the end zone 15 times as a rusher and once as a receiver. Yet his 150 rushes the past six games is more than Chubb’s 140 through nine contests.
Auburn’s backup running back now is sophomore Kam Martin, who has 46 rushes for 310 yards (6.7 per carry) this season. Martin amassed 136 of those yards in the 41-7 opening win over Georgia Southern.
If it’s a slugfest, I know who’s going to have the fresher running backs in the fourth quarter.
Of course, a running game isn’t solely dependent on the backfield. The offensive line has a definite role to play. That doesn’t favor Auburn either. Georgia’s line has been together on the field, with minor exceptions, since the season’s third game. Auburn’s been juggling starters all season because of injury issues. Those sound like they’ll likely continue Saturday.
Injured Auburn offensive linemen Mike Horton and Darius James are expected to return to practice Tuesday, but their status for Saturday’s rendition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry remains to be seen.
Horton (ankle) and James (leg) both started against Texas A&M before exiting early in the game due to lingering effects from their injuries, which they sustained weeks earlier.
“Everybody, we’re expecting to practice today,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We may not know exactly what they means, who’s going to start and all that, until we get to Thursday or Friday. I know the two we had to pull out in the game, I know they’re great competitors. I know they want to play this week.
“They’re going to do everything in their power to do that, but we’ll just see where that goes.”
Not exactly the voice of optimism there. If those two can’t go, that would make for the sixth different starting lineup Auburn has fielded along the offensive line this season, although to be fair, the line played pretty well against TAMU after they went out. (Although it’s worth mentioning that the Aggies haven’t been as good stopping the run this season as Georgia has.)
If it’s a race to make the other guy one-dimensional, then, you have to say circumstances favor the Dawgs. And that’s definitely the goal.
Like any team, Georgia’s primary focus will be to stop the run since that’s what Auburn primarily wants to have success with. And when Georgia can slow the run down and force a team into throwing the ball more than it would like, it has generally fared well with its outcome.
Nationally, Georgia ranks fifth in rush defense by allowing only 89 yards on the ground per game. In games where Georgia held its opponent to less than 100 rushing yards, it forced teams into a completion percentage of only 57.7. Three teams have run for over 100 yards against Georgia this season – Appalachian State (136), Mississippi State (177) and Florida (183). Yet in those games, the opposition has only have completed only 51 percent of its passes for an average of 105.7 yards.
Point is, Georgia has taken at least one aspect away from every offense it has faced.
Inside linebacker Roquan Smith said Georgia will do its part to limit Johnson and the Auburn rushing attack first.
“We just have to make those guys one dimensional,” Smith said. “If we stop the run, we make you one dimensional and you have to put it in the air. I think (Johnson’s) an awesome runner. He runs with his pads down. He’s a great guy, he leads the SEC in rushing (touchdowns). He’ll be a great challenge for our defense.”
I don’t think there are any great secrets about what Georgia needs to do on defense — maintain containment on the edge, force the runs back to the inside and keep Stidham from burning the secondary on deep passes. That won’t be an easy task, as Auburn is the SEC leader in plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage in conference play. Georgia’s been excellent at stopping those kinds of gains, though.
It’s gonna be a real test of will imposing.